One of my least favorite things in the world to do—down there with drinking laxative shakes before a colonoscopy and removing wood splinters from under my toenails—is reading reader comments at the end of an online news story. This is a monumentally depressing task which I somehow often end up doing despite my better judgment. I suffer through each grammatically suspect, civically bar-lowering online comment about the news, and I soldier on, hoping the next comment will restore at least some of my faith in humanity. It never does.
Back in the old days of made-of-paper newspapers, reader response was different. First, there was an “opinion” section in each day’s paper, where we could read as many as five or six thoughtfully composed “letters to the editor” which had been written by other readers whom it was easy to tell were doing so out of a sense of moral and civic duty. Another, more immediate kind of reader response—available to me at least—was the harrumphing and the snide retorts of the person who happened to be reading the paper at the time: usually my dad. Fortunately these responses were somewhat limited, as there was only one paper in the house each day, and he had it to himself most of the time. Besides, Dad was actually a pretty good-natured guy, so it was mainly only football scores and liberal politicians that raised his ire when he saw them in the paper.
Reader comments on news sites today are like a bus station full of patience-impaired sociopaths, each holding a newspaper of his/her own and reading the same story at the same time. Each commenter—acting behind an identity-masking moniker like “i’mrightyou’rewrong” or “censorthis”—has decided at least two things: A, the particular article in question is one more datum in a mountain of evidence signaling the impending demise of civilization; and B, other commenters who question his/her authority on A are suffering from either genetically-inherited or self-inflicted stupidity. You can imagine that, if they all actually were in the same room with newspapers in hand, they’d be rolling them up and batting each other on the head with them.
I myself have never dared comment on an online news story. But I did once write a letter to the editor of a newspaper. At one point in college I dreamed of being an environmental activist, and I decided to create a campaign to “erase” the giant 50-year-old block-letter school initials that were whitewashed on the bare slope of a mountain behind the university. I sent a carefully-worded letter to the local newspaper, saying it was a tragedy to see such a beautiful mountain face marred by this glaring, self-important set of alphabetic icons pointing at the sky, like a basketball-game taunt to aliens or North Korean satellites passing overhead: “We’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you?!”
When I saw my letter published in the paper I beamed like an award-winning novelist. I couldn’t wait to see what responses would follow, even disagreeing ones. For two weeks I checked the paper every morning for a reply to my ecological indictment of the university’s hubris. The result: goose eggs. Nobody said a word. What’s worse, it was autumn and the football season was starting, so the school hired a crew to go up on the mountain and give the letters a fresh coat of paint. My campaign was ended.
Of course I was disappointed, but secretly I had to acknowledge to myself that the main point of my exercise was not to start an environmental movement but to see my name in the newspaper. The opinion page was my “mountain,” if you will. Not even Dad the football fan griped about my letter, probably out of familial respect. He might have, though, if “censorthis” had written it instead of me.